As we look around the corner to the occupations of tomorrow, schools and states will need to be more dynamic and future oriented–especially when it comes to career and technical education. – Vicki Phillips in Forbes

Source: The World Economic Forum. (2012). The Global Competitiveness Report: 2012-2013.

Recently, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released their 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report.  In this report, the WEF ranks 144 countries based on a global competitiveness index; their definition of competitiveness encompasses “the set of institutions, policies, and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country,” with the understanding that productivity directly influences prosperity.  The index is based on 12 “pillars,” including institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, goods market efficiency, financial market development, labor market efficiency, technological readiness, market size, innovation and business sophistication.  All of these pillars speak to a country’s ability to promote both stability and growth among their institutions and workforce, strengthening their position in the global economy.

We have always believed that education is one of the most important factors affecting a country’s economy, and the WEF is in agreement.  Two of the twelve pillars used to calculate the overall score deal with a country’s ability to provide education for its children from the primary level through the postsecondary level, with one of the pillars also factoring in the health profile of a country.

So who came out on top?  Unsurprisingly, several of the countries with the strongest education systems as measured by the OECD’s PISA program cracked the top ten, with both Singapore and Finland in the top three.  The Netherlands, Hong Kong and Japan placed slightly lower but still performed well, coming it at fifth, ninth and tenth, respectively, though Japan did slip one spot from last year.  Hong Kong moved up two spots from the last ranking to enter the top ten, displacing Denmark, which slid from eighth place to twelfth.  Other PISA top performers’ results were mixed; Canada, Korea and Australia all made the top twenty (fourteenth, nineteenth and twentieth, respectively), while New Zealand came in at twenty-third, rising two places from last year, and China at twenty-ninth, dropping three places from last year (though it is important to note that China is not itself a PISA top performer – Shanghai is).  However, even twenty-ninth place in a field of 144 is fairly impressive.

The WEF, in addition to producing an overall ranking based on the 12 pillars included in their index, also provided rankings within each of the 12 pillars, making it possible to compare their education top performer lists with the PISA top performers.  In the health and primary education category, six of the top ten PISA performers made the top ten in the WEF analysis (Finland, Singapore, New Zealand, Netherlands, Canada and Japan).  Rounding out the category were European nations known for their ability to provide wide scale and equitable healthcare and basic education: Belgium, Iceland, and Switzerland, and one surprise, Cyprus, which is ranked fifty-eighth overall.  However, in the category of health and basic education, Cyprus received a score of 6.5 out of 7, primarily, it appears, due to a primary enrollment rate of 98.7 percent of children, a relatively high life expectancy (79.4 years) and a low incidence of certain diseases.  Indeed, the health and primary education category is much more focused on health than on primary education, with eight of the ten indicators within the category related to health, and just two, quality of primary education and primary education enrollment rate, related to education.

Source: The World Economic Forum. (2012). The Global Competitiveness Report: 2012-2013.

The other pillar dealing with education – higher education and training – does take into account many other factors that actually speak to the quality of the education system.  The indicators are secondary and tertiary enrollment, quality of the education system, quality of math and science education, quality of management schools, Internet access in school, availability of research and training services, and the extent of staff training.  In this category, four of the PISA top performers (Finland, Singapore, Netherlands and New Zealand) were rated among the WEF top ten.  The other countries included Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, the United States and Taiwan.  The United States is world-renowned for its university system, and the European countries all have some of the strongest vocational and training systems in the world.  Taiwan has extremely high enrollment in both secondary education (100 percent) and tertiary education (83.4 percent, ranked seventh of all countries), as well as a high quality math and science education (ranked sixth of all countries).

Source: The World Economic Forum. (2012). The Global Competitiveness Report: 2012-2013.

Clearly, the countries that perform the best on PISA are among the most economically competitive in the world, for a variety of reasons.  But the WEF report, and their index, suggest that there are other factors beyond student performance worth considering in evaluating both competitiveness and education systems.  Their rankings place more emphasis both on the context of education – particularly the health of children and the workforce – and on the strength of non-academic education, and particularly workforce training.  Both of these factors are hugely important to the overall strength of the education system and can be clearly brought to bear on many of the other factors that add up to a competitive economy, including pillars like labor market efficiency, technological readiness and innovation.  Taken together, the PISA results and the WEF rankings indicate the continued predominance of systems like Singapore, Finland, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, who top the rankings in many respects, while more established advanced industrial economies like the United States appear, conversely, to be on the decline.